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Issue 212

‘Masculinities’ at the Barbican: An Impossible Map

Despite being full of great work, this show is at once too broad in its remit and too narrow in its execution

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews , UK Reviews | 06 MAY 20

In Lewis Carroll’s novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), a mysterious character, Mein Herr, tells the narrator about a map he has made. Designed to 1:1 scale, ‘it has never been spread out,’ he complains, ‘as the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’

I thought of Mein Herr’s impossible map when I visited ‘Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography’. While a valiant effort to reflect upon the minefield that is gender identity, the show, despite being full of great work, is at once too broad in its remit and too narrow in its execution to fulfil its intentions. According to the accompanying literature, co-authored by Alona Pardo (the curator) and Jane Alison (Barbican Head of Visual Arts), the exhibition aims to ‘explore the ways in which masculinity is variously experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day’. Phew. 

Catherine Opie, Bo from 'Being and Having', 1991. Courtesy: © the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 

While there are some powerful photographs and films by artists from non-Western countries – Angola (Kiluanji Kia Henda), Cameroon (Samuel Fosso), India (Sunil Gupta), Israel (Adi Nes), Japan (Masahisa Fukase), Lebanon (Fouad Elkoury, Akram Zaatari) and South Africa (Mikhael Subotzky) – the vast majority are by artists working in Europe or the US. Are we to assume that explorations of masculinity in other parts of the world, such as South America, are simply not recorded (which is obviously not the case)? What of the many roles masculinity has to play in Indigenous cultures? And, while the show is replete with images of bull-fighters and cowboys, fathers and sons, soldiers and students, politicians, body builders and drag queens, there are, startlingly, no imams, priests or pop stars – yet, surely, the power of both religion and music to reinforce, repress or liberate what constitutes masculinity is momentous.

Rotimi Fani Kayode, Untitled, 1985. Courtesy: © the artist and Autograph, London 

That said, this huge show contains a rich cross-section of works by 55 artists – male, female and gender-nonconforming – from the past 60 years or so. Its six sections – ‘Disrupting the Archetype’, ‘Male Order’, ‘Too Close to Home’, ‘Queering Masculinity’, ‘Reclaiming the Black Body’ and ‘Women on Men’ – attempt to shape the argument that masculinity is a word which has been stretched to breaking point. It can be straight or queer, toxic or celebratory, a state of mind, a joke, an affectation or a form of protection; a pose, a threat, the result of – or an opposition to – biology, class or race. In its most conservative form, it’s something that exists to be contested. Rising to the challenge is one of the strongest sections, ‘Women on Men’, which includes photographs by female artists – Laurie Anderson, Ana Mendieta, Tracey Moffatt and others – that reveal, often via mockery, the insidious, occasionally absurd, power of the male gaze. For Anderson’s series ‘Fully Automated Nikon (Object / Objection / Objectivity)’ (1973), she wielded her camera like a weapon, aiming it at men on the street who attacked her with unsolicited sexual remarks. The blunt texts describing the incidents – ‘I’d like to screw you, baby.’ – reveal the depths of the men’s casual, dehumanizing entitlement.

Thomas Dworzak, Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2002. Courtesy: © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Overall, no single version of masculinity is favoured, which, given the term’s myriad manifestations, is as it should be. Andy Warhol’s brilliantly deadpan video Fashion: Male Models (1979) is screened in close proximity to Wolfgang Tillmans’s archival images of the military (‘Soldiers: The Nineties’, 1999), and a heartbeat away from Sunil Gupta’s ‘Exiles’ (1987), a moving study of closeted gay men in Delhi. Similarly, Samuel Fosso’s self-portraits from 1975–78 as a teenager in Bangui are a million conceptual miles from the documentary photographs of David Wojnarowicz’s masked performance as Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–79), yet no less affecting. Given the diversity within ‘Masculinities’, its subtitle – ‘Liberation Through Photography’ – is, perhaps, a misnomer. Surely, the medium is simply the messenger, not the saviour: liberation results from the lived actions of so many brave individuals who boldly question the conformities that have had a stranglehold on gender self-expression for far too long. 

Main image: Adi Nes, Untitled from the series 'Soldiers', 1999. Courtesy: the artist and Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.